Boom or bust for tertiary education
Bertalan Magyar is a research fellow in Education Futures who researches the economics of education.
A severe and prolonged crisis such as COVID-19 looks set to disturb the relationship between education and employment. Usually, periods of economic downturn see people turning to the tertiary education sector for retraining, gaining more qualifications, and even simply waiting out the financial storm. However, the likely economic downturn prompted by the pandemic looks set to be far more serious than we have experienced before – even during the global financial crisis of 2008. Unemployment and job casualisation could likely be extreme, and will affect nearly everyone across the occupational spectrum, especially young people.
There are two ways this might play out for tertiary education. On a positive note, we might see a renewed interest in identifying the types of educational qualifications and skills that seem to have helped people to remain in employment. This might point to ‘pandemic-proof’ forms of education that universities and colleges can begin to roll-out and expand. On the other hand, COVID-19’s frightening negative economic impact on the entire economy might call for extreme labour market policies that leapfrog tertiary education altogether. We might see the resurgence of ideas such as universal basic income for young people, wage subsidies, living wage, rent subsidies, debt-forgiveness, and other stimulus and targeted relief packages. In this latter scenario, it might be a while before tertiary education’s fortunes begin to rise. Only time will tell.
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